The Mongols cut off Russian culture not only from the declining Byzantium in the south, but also from the influences of the West. In France and Italy, the first universities were being founded and the glimmerings of the early Renaissance could be felt, but the Russians saw nothing of this, as they were forced into isolation and pushed ever northward into Muscovy. The Mongols made them a subject race, isolating them for two hundred years into a kind of cocoon. To the rest of the world, it was as though they had ceased to exist. During this period, European and Byzantine writers simply stopped mentioning them. These were called the Centuries of Silence.
In Muscovy were wooded lands, and Russian Christianity melded into the great forests where the old gods still lived. Mother Nature and the great Perun, god of lightning and fire, reigned here. You cannot grasp the truth about Russian Christianity unless you recognise that it was fortified by that fertile, damp soil of the deep forest. Denied political freedom, the Russians, not for the last time, turned their eyes to God. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they spread out amongst the northern lakes and rivers and established settlements across the woodlands.
In Malye Korely, in the deep north, more than a thousand kilometres from Moscow, the Russians preserved one of the most evocative of the early settlements. The quintessential expression of Russian Christianity was the wooden church. A wonderfully homely building, it was constructed like any other house in the village, of wooden logs, but it was built tall, so it could be seen from miles away above the tree-line. After all, this was the house of God.
One of the characteristic features of the little wooden church are its onion domes, and they’ve been shaped by the forest too. They look like architectural fir cones. The interior space is small and intimate. When it is filled with the congregation, one would feel part of a family of worshippers. That feeling of connection to the home has been carried over into the art and architecture of Russia. A perfected vision of the home is the church, and the iconostasis becomes a sign of that intimacy. It is a uniquely Russian invention, a multi-tiered curtain of gorgeous iconography, all brought together unlike the Byzantines who dispersed them all around the church. The candles illuminate the icons, which glow warmly and represent the hearth, the centre of a home.
The church indeed becomes a welcoming sight for the dispossessed Russians. It invites the faithful into warmth and sustenance, and where the old traditional welcome was of bread and salt, now it is the flesh and blood of Christ in the form of the communion. The icons gaze protectively and sanctify the entire act.
[From Andrew Graham-Dixon’s The Art of Russia, BBC.]